Pith Helmets of the British Empire

O ften dubbed the “pith helmet” or “sun helmet” by collectors, the British Foreign Service Helmet is one of the most evocative pieces of militaria from the Victorian Age. The cloth-covered, lightweight style of headgear  that was used for the last quarter of the 19th century is as iconic to the era as the German steel helmet is to World War II. Nevertheless, it is a piece that has eluded any significant study. In fact, much of the origins of the helmet are still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Still, it is hard to think of those British soldiers in red coats facing off against the forces of the Mahdi or standing tall against the Zulu without their Foreign Service Helmets.

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This Boer War helmet was worn by an officer of the 4th (Lancaster) or The King’s Own Royal Regiment. Collection of Stuart Bates

INDIAN?ORIGINS

    Throughout the first half of the 19th century, the British Army, as well as the military forces within the British East India Company, continued to wear uniforms that were only slightly changed from the Napoleonic Wars. This included the use of the shako, which remained popular throughout the armies of Europe. In the course of 60 years, the British used several different versions of shakos until the Home Service Helmet became the standard type of headgear for the British Army in 1878. However, this helmet was only intended for wear by units serving in the British Isles.
 
   Events half way around the world played a major role in the headgear used by the British Army throughout the Empire. In particular, it was the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

    British forces had been using the 1855 Pattern Shako as well as forage caps as the primary types of cover, but during the Mutiny, many officers acquired locally made helmets. These were often pressed cork, felt or canvas on a wicker frame. The exact origin of the helmets is uncertain, but it is likely that these were based on the earliest sun helmets provided for civilian use in the region.

     When the helmets were first used by British Army or Company troops remains a question for speculation. It is worth noting that at least one painting from the era shows an officer of the 22nd Madras Native Infantry in 1856 wearing a high crested helmet that closely resembles the later style of the Foreign Service Helmets.

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Above is a British Foreign Service helmet without the puggaree. Collection of Steve Vernon

    According to Indian Army Uniforms by W.Y. Carman, “The Indian Mutiny caused a great upheaval in accepted traditions and many changes towards a realistic uniform took place. Special headgear and warm weather garments were at last considered and officially approved.” Carman adds that this included the adoption of a tropical helmet for parade and ceremony use when the undress cap could not be worn.

    The new permanent style of headgear was a cork helmet that was ordered for European officers in native regiments. Messrs. Hawkes and Co. of London, a company that may have had the original sole patent for making such headgear, was commissioned with the task of producing these first helmets.  
 
    Carman also writes that the helmet “was to be covered in white cloth with a regimental pugri (puggaree) and a gilt curb chin-chain.” From 1860, a cork helmet with an air vent at the top was issued to all regiments serving in India. It was this style of helmet that was used during the Abyssinian campaign in 1868 and in the following Ashanti War of 1874 in West Africa. In June 1877, a white helmet of similar design was officially authorized for wear by all ranks throughout the Empire.

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Despite what movies suggest, the Foreign Service Helmet was typically worn without a badge. Officers’ helmets utilized the same type of chin scales as the Home Service Helmet. This example was formerly owned by Major C. Venables-Llewelyn of the Glamorgan Imperial Yeomanry. It was produced by Hamburger Rogers & Son, King Street, Covent Garden, London. Collection of Peter Suciu
 
    Labeled the “Foreign Service Helmet,” it was made of cork covered in white cloth with six seams. Peaks and sides were bound in white cloth, with a one-inch wide piece of cloth sewn around the headband above the peaks. This was covered by a puggaree in certain stations such as Hong Kong, Bermuda and Malta. The back peak measured 12″ from the crown to the edge. The front peak measured 10?”, but as these were handmade, variations are certainly encountered. A zinc button covered in white cloth was fitted to the top of the helmet.

KHAKI?FEATURES

    In addition to the helmets, the British forces in India also began to experiment with a new color of uniform. The famous “Red Coat” had seen widespread use since the days of Queen Anne nearly 150 years earlier. While the Victorian Age had been one of strict pomp and circumstance, the British Army was learning many costly lessons of war. Among these was that the bright white helmets may look good on parade, but they didn’t offer much in the way of camouflage.

    The word “khaki” is Persian for “dust.” While serving in India, it was common for officers to attempt to break up the white color of helmets, as well as other white garments with the use of mud, tea, coffee, tobacco juice and curry powder. The results varied greatly, and by 1884 a patented dyestuff produced a fast “khaki” dye. It wasn’t until the second Afghan War in 1885 that a full khaki uniform replaced the red uniforms and white helmets. But because the helmet was often a private purchase item, many continued to be produced in white. Many officers purchased a white helmet and relied on a khaki cover, rather than having to purchase both a white and a khaki helmet. For this reason, it isn’t uncommon to find Foreign Service Helmets from much later than 1885 that are white in appearance.

    In 1877, helmets were authorized to have a puggaree, the cloth wrap around the outer headband of the helmet, for station in Malta, India, Ceylon, Hong Kong, the Straits Settlements, the West Indies and Bermuda, St. Helena, Canada, West Africa and the Cape. The purpose of this cotton cloth wrapping was to help keep the helmet cool. Exactly how well this worked is left to debate. Based on period photos and surviving examples, it seems that considerable license was exercised by troops on overseas service, especially in South Africa, the Sudan and Egypt. There are many surviving examples of helmets with and without puggarees, but the 1900 Dress Regulations authorized the use of puggarees for all stations after the Army Order 83 of 1896.

     Depending on the location where the helmet was used, a helmet curtain may have been made available to provide shade to the neck. This wrapped around the helmet and was tied from the front. Because the helmet curtain was not permanently attached, few examples have survived. An original helmet curtain must be considered extremely rare.

HELMET?BADGES?AND?FITTINGS
    
    One major misconception of the Foreign Service Helmet is that these all had the unit plates on the front. No doubt, this is due to movies such as “Zulu,” starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker. But in fact, most of the Foreign Service Helmets never were fitted with helmet plates or any form of badges while being used by the British Army, and almost certainly not on campaign.
    
    Part of the confusion is that colonial units, including the Natal Mounted Police, Natal Carbineers, Durban Mounted Rifles and Transvaal Range rs did wear plates, and more often spikes. The spike, when fitted into an acanthus leaf base, screwed into the same threads as the zinc button. Both the plates and spikes were typically issued in white metal or brass, and examples of each are encountered. 

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Three soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Note the use of the curtains on the helmets, as well as the famous Gloucester “Back Badge.” Gloucestershire Museum

    
    The chin strap used in the field is another interest that has continued to spark debate among collectors. “I am lead to believe that brass chin scales and a brass spike were only worn on parade,” says British helmet collector Steve Vernon. There are numerous photos that do suggest that for parade, British officers, especially in the years immediately following the introduction of the helmet, may have adopted the tendency to wear a spike and chin scales. This would be in keeping with the style that the officers grew accustomed to, considering that the newly adopted Home Service Helmet featured a brass spike and chin scales. But outside of the parade grounds, the spike certainly wasn’t business as usual for most officers. “In the field the chin scales were switched for a leather chin strap and the brass spike replaced with a covered zinc button which screwed into the spike’s base.

    And while the British Army did not typically wear spikes or plates, the same rules did not seem to apply to the British Marines units, who wore a spike–or a ball for Marine Artillery units–with the regimental-pattern helmet plate. It was more common for units of the British Army, especially in the later decades of the 19th century, to adorn the unit insignia on the left hand side of the helmet. This was typically a unit’s cloth patch that was removed from the shoulder strap and either tucked into the puggaree or sewn to it.  

    By the end of the 19th century, the Foreign Service Helmet was in use throughout the Empire. By most reports it was, on average, liked by the troops. Enlisted men and NCOs were supplied with a helmet and often, a cover, while officers had to purchase their own helmets.

    As with the Home Service Helmets, several manufacturers produced the Foreign Service Helmets. Thus, the collector may encounter subtle–and even not so subtle–differences in design. The primary manufacturers of these helmets are believed to be the same makers of the Home Service Helmet and included Hawkes & Company of Piccadilly, London; Humphreys & Crook of Haymarket, London; J.B. Johnstone of Saville St., London, and Dawson St., Dublin; H. Lehmann of Aldershot; and Samuel Gardner & Co of Clifford St., London. It is curious that a helmet in the collection of one of the authors was made by the aforementioned Hawkes & Co., but the label touts the firm  as the “sole manufacturer”!

THE?WOLSELEY?PATTERN?HELMET

    By 1896, the day of the scarlet uniforms on the battlefield had passed. The British Army  universally adopted khaki-colored uniforms as the standard campaign dress.

    This was the twilight of the Victorian Age, and in 1901 after ruling an empire that stretched around the world the great British Queen and Empress of India died. Throughout nearly every year of her reign, British troops had engaged an enemy somewhere around the globe. At the time of her death, the Anglo-Boer War was still being fought. For the British, this was a new type of war, offering many hard lessons. It was also the last war where the British Army used the 1877 Pattern Foreign Service Helmet in large numbers.

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Commonly called the “topi,” the Wolseley sun helmet was used during WWI?and remained in service through WWII. The body is cork covered with khaki drill cloth that has six seams. This example is from the WWI period and features the patch of the Lancashire Fusiliers. This unit fought at the infamous Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Collection of Peter Suciu

    At the start of the war the helmet was almost universally issued to British forces, while other units began to experiment with other styles of headgear, notably slouch hats. But with the harsh realities of trench warfare still more than a decade away, a tropical sun helmet remained a popular style of headgear.

    The new British helmet, designed by Sir Garnet Wolseley and bearing his name–the Wolseley Pattern Helmet–had a flatter and wider brim than the earlier style. Period photographs suggest staff and general officers first used the Wolseley Pattern Helmet during the Sudan Campaign in 1896, but it became especially popular with other officers–and even the troops–toward the end of the Boer War. During the conflict, most regimental officers continued to wear the older pattern helmet, no doubt to avoid standing out to the talented Boer snipers.
    
    The helmet, which was commonly called the “topi,” was made of cork and covered in khaki drill cloth with six seams. The peaks measured 3″ wide at the front, 4″ at the back and 2″ at the side. The helmet was bound around the headband with a khaki puggaree, and typically had a brown leather chin strap. This helmet widely replaced the older Foreign Service Helmet beginning in 1901 and was in general use throughout the empire at the start of WWI. During the Great War, troops serving in the Gallipoli, Middle East and African campaigns wore this headgear. As most of the helmets produced for these campaigns were khaki, a cover was never considered.

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This post-WWI Wolseley helmet was worn by Lt H. A. Stallan, Royal Signal Corps. Collection of Stuart Bates

    
    “The 1900 Dress Regulations referred to a sun helmet as the ‘Wolseley Pattern Cork Helmet’,” according to a curator at the National Army Museum in London, adding that this was the year the helmet was officially ‘sealed’ (approved). “It was worn by the West Africa and Chinese Regiments. By the ‘1904 Dress Regulations,’ it was intended for service at all stations abroad. Later, it was also to be made of white drill.”
    
    As with the Foreign Service Helmet, the Wolseley Pattern Helmet was typically not worn with spike, plates or other accouterments. However, various units did use a white drill version with a front plate and spike. Various band units and the Royal Marines continue to use this pattern as part of their full dress.
   
    The Wolseley Pattern Helmet should not be confused with the so-called “Indian-Pattern” or “Bombay Bowler” helmet, which closely resemble a “safari” helmet. This style of helmet was never officially adopted by the British military. They are believed to be private purchase items used by officers throughout the empire during the first half of the 20th century. No photographic evidence has been found to prove that these helmets were used in any of the late 19th century campaigns such as the Sudan or South Africa.

SUN?HELMETS?OF?OTHER?NATIONS
    
    While the Americans were clearly inspired by the success of the German armies in the Franco-Prussian War when they adopted a dress helmet very closely resembling the famous German Pickelhaube, they turned to the British for a summer helmet. In the mid-1870s, even before the British formally adopted the Foreign Service Helmet, the United States Quartermaster, Montgomery C. Meigs, contacted the British government to obtain cloth-covered cork helmets.
    
    Meigs’ helmets were used to develop the United States’ own version. Over t he next three years, troops of the 9th Cavalry serving in Texas and troops at the Artillery School in Fort Monroe, Virginia, wore the experimental helmets. In their book, A Guide to U.S. Army Dress Helmets: 1872 to 1904, Mark Kasal and Don Moore explain that many of these helmets were produced domestically by Horstmann Brothers and Company of Philadelphia, despite the long-accepted belief that most American-worn sun helmets were made in England.
    
    The first style of helmets, which has come to be known as the “Model 1881 Summer Helmet,” had a shorter front and rear bills than the British Foreign Service Helmet. It was constructed of cork and covered in white cloth with four seams (rather than the six seams of its British cousin). The white color proved impractical in the field. In 1882, it was changed to khaki.
    
    According to Kasal and Moore’s research, the helmet was modified in 1887.?This later version featured a steeper front bill and a much larger rear cap. The helmets remained in use by the American military, including Army and USMC units, through 1904. It saw service in the American Indian Wars and in the Spanish-American War.
    
    However, the helmet was as unsuccessful to the Americans as it had been a success to the British. The American soldiers hated the helmet, and most were quickly discarded. There is, however, ample evidence that the helmet was used by officers in Cuba and later in the Philippines. At no time did the Americans ever authorize the use of a puggaree with their helmets, and it seems unlikely that U.S. helmets ever had any.
    
    The American summer helmets were authorized for wear in the field (with the summer dress uniforms) in place of the Prussian-looking, black felt, dress helmet that was used at the time. The summer cork helmet was never intended to be used with insignia or trimmings, but it was not uncommon for officers to transfer the eagle, oak leaf base, side buttons and cords from the black helmet. This practice was officially banned in 1887, but numerous examples suggest that it remained in practice until the helmets were taken out of service.
    
    It is worth noting that  because the helmets and accouterments were sold as surplus in the Bannerman catalogs for many years, it is likely that many examples were “pieced” together either by Bannerman’s or by collectors over the years. Trying to determine when a helmet was modified can be especially tricky today.
   
     It wasn’t just the Americans who adopted the British style headdress. During the latter half of the 19th century, many European nations began to expand their overseas empires. This included lands in tropical or otherwise warm climate regions. While soldier comfort had never been cause for concern, armies of the day did begin to create “summer” or “warm weather” uniforms. Many of these included the sun helmet, which has also come to be known as the “pith helmet.”
    
    Though it is beyond the scope of this article, the major powers of Europe introduced their own sun helmets during the final decades of the 19th century. Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Portugal all used a tropical sun helmet. In the cases of Italy, Belgium and Portugal, British-made helmets were used until those armies were able to produce their own. Even the domestically produced helmets of these nations appear to closely rely on the British pattern.
    
    The rival powers of France and Germany (who did stand, albeit briefly, together along with the other Europeans during the Boxer Rebellion) authorized tropical sun helmets for their units serving in tropical climates.
    
    The French Army, however, continued to rely on kepis and other headgear throughout most of its empire, but sun helmets of a French design were issued to some units, most notably the Marine Infantry. The Model 1880 helmets were made of cork and covered in white cloth with six seams. A copper anchor was worn on the front of the helmet. In the field the helmet was worn with a blue cover that matched the tunic of the Marine Infantry, and this too featured a copper anchor adorned on the front.
    
    Whereas it is generally believed that the British Home Service Helmet was modeled after the German Pickelhaube, it is somewhat fitting that the Germans are believed to have modeled their sun helmets after the British Pattern. Several versions were used from the 1890s through the end of WWI. These were used in the German African colonies, the Pacific and campaigns in Palestine.
    
    The first pattern helmet closely resembled the British Foreign Service Helmet, and it featured a Helmewappen (front plate) with the national colors cap cockade below the plate. The later Model 1900 tropical helmet used Pickelhaube- style cockades on the side of the helmet. It is believed that the only officers retained the Helmewappen on the front of the Model 1900.

FOREIGN?SERVICE?HELMET?LEGACY
    
    With the end of WWI, most nations discontinued the use of the older style of sun helmets. Tropical pith helmets, those more closely resembling the Wolseley pattern, did remain in use through the Cold War. The Americans introduced a pressed fiber helmet that was used for nearly 60 years in tropical regions, and it even featured a mock puggaree around the headband!
    
    Today, it is almost impossible to think of the battles in North Africa between the British “Desert Rats” and German Afrikakorps without considering pith helmets. While it was the Europeans that introduced this form of headgear, it inspired other nations around the world, notably the forces of Imperial Japan and the armies of North Vietnam. Throughout their long history, the helmets may not have protected the wearer from bullets or shrapnel, but they did offer some protection from the elements. The helmets’ greatest attribute, however, is the mark they left as iconic symbols of the soldiers who wore them.

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